Jennifer Rivera's blog to his, and only then to his website, where I duly investigated audio clips which inspired me to mark the date for his Carnegie Hall debut this past Friday. Phan's own blog provided me with my homework material: reflections and history on Purcell and Britten, the composers to whose work his recital was dedicated. Carnegie Hall has videos, which I discovered only after the fact, on the preparation of the recital and on Phan's obsession with Britten. It was a program both passionate and (for me, at least) challengingly cerebral, which Phan delivered with vivid, versatile characterization and impressive command of dynamics and phrasing. The complete program, with notes, may be found here.
Purcell's songs led off the evening, and "If Music Be the Food of Love" (inspired by Shakespeare, but it goes on differently) was an engaging opening, filled with the joy it speaks of. Describing moods of love hopeful and despairing, tender or resentful, Phan's superb diction rendered the texts printed in the program superfluous, and his physical engagement and commitment to each emotional vignette left me with the impression of a singer who asked nothing better than to communicate his feeling for the works to his audience. Mark Berry, in a recent review of Elgar at the LSO, wrote that "cobwebs were swept away with a conviction that led one to believe they had never been there in the first place." I can't resist echoing the expression, as I had always thought of Purcell as... ceremonial. I'm very fond of his fanfares, but their festivity has always struck me as having something a bit solemn and remote about it. The gutsy sensuality with which Phan delivered these songs was a world away from the mannered flirtation I was expecting, and it was very exciting.
Phan sounded less vocally at ease in the first of Britten's Michaelangelo Sonnets... but then, the songs themselves are so profoundly ill-at-ease. His coloring of the text was very fine throughout, and he seemed more comfortable with the second half of the sonnets. After the interval, Phan gave "Winter Words." I find the song cycle itself rather curious, to be honest. Hardy as lover of nature is there, and Hardy's atmospherically bleak despair; extolling of a non-glamorous country life as well. I'm not sure I can find the Leitfaden... but I'm not familiar with the cycle, and Phan found a mood for each song (choosing humor rather than tragedy for "Wagtail and Baby" surprised me, but given Hardy's sardonic wit, it probably shouldn't have.) The concluding set of folk song settings was given with a tenderness that was not saccharine, and "The Ash Grove" was a pleasing encore. Although the audience rustled their programs far more than was necessary, they did grant Phan both respectful silence through sets (and for that crucial moment at the conclusion) and enthusiastic applause at their ending. I left emotionally satisfied, intellectually stimulated, and hoping that the career of this "rising young tenor" includes more New York engagements before too long.